We at Ninth Letter are delighted to feature Tiana Clark’s essay “Kingdom Cash & Glossolalia,” which is the winner of the 2023 Disquiet International Literary Award in Nonfiction.
How does one describe what is nearly impossible to describe? In her essay Clark succeeds in this task, as she looks back at her young self in the midst of a “cacophonous” church choir attempting to “speak in tongues.” Clark expertly navigates the sonic landscape of this moment: “Assonance hovered and lingered in that room like expensive perfume, wafting mystical linguistics. The consonants had sharper moments that cut the smooth piano keys with clatter like tiny holy knives.” Yet she also reveals the complexity of her feelings—skepticism and awe, embarrassment and release—and behind that, a tender secret motive: to communicate with the uppercase Father because her own lowercase father is far removed from her life.
—Philip Graham, Editor-at-Large
“…the god enters the body, the mouth
cracks open, and a mad fluttering, which
is the future, fills the cave, which is
—Carl Phillips, “Closing Time; A Little Moonlight’
“I couldn’t know, as a child, how close my desire lives to fear.”
—Rachel Mennies, “August 7, 2016”
As a kid, I wanted to believe in magic, that I could possess superpowers, that there was something extraordinary about me. In my church, God was often equated with the idea and archetype of a father. Since I didn’t know or have access to mine, speaking in tongues felt like a special conduit, a two-way flume, a way I could talk to a dad and make it personal. Maybe my dad? I wanted so badly to believe that if I squeezed my eyes tighter, and raised my hands higher, and spoke in this new wild way, that my heavenly dad could see and hear me, would want me, would choose me when my earthly one didn’t.
I’ve never met my dad. My mother retells the story in so many different ways that my father is myth, an absent god, but a God, nonetheless. A twenty-year-old with shaggy brown hair and scarlet pimples from the sheen of slippery butter where they met and worked at the Hollywood Bowl’s popcorn stand in Los Angeles. What happened? She says she called him when I was born, but he couldn’t find a ride to the hospital. She says they weren’t even talking by then. She says they were together and that he offered to pay for the abortion. No, they were broken up. No, they were broken up, but living together. A relationship can become so many different versions of the same story. The myth keeps morphing. The truth is I have his brown, almond shaped eyes.
The first time I talked to God, I was wearing a white silk pleated skirt, white tights, and a matching top with lacy sleeves and pearl buttons. I was ten, maybe eleven years old. Children’s Church was upstairs from my church’s main sanctuary, past a hallway of painted scenes depicting animals in pairs making their way, two by two, to Noah’s Ark: monkeys, elephants, tigers, all with goofy, cartoonish faces. Long fluorescent lights led to two brown double doors. Behind them, a large room. Two main rows of blue metal folding chairs were usually set up with a center aisle down the middle, like a wedding ceremony. In front of the chairs, there was a microphone, a drum set, electric keyboard. In the back stood a large, two-tiered puppet theater made of PVC piping covered in royal blue cloth. Here, Pastor Lonnie performed Biblical stories with felt puppets in the style of Sesame Street.
Sometimes Salvation Dalmatian would appear in the skits, a giant dog costume that the assistant Children’s Church pastor would wear, and he’d pretend to pee by raising his leg to our laugher. We could earn kingdom cash for memorizing Bible verses or winning other church-related games, and after the service you could trade in the bright, fake paper money for candy or toys like a religious Chuck-E-Cheese setup on a table in the back of the room. So many Sundays of my early childhood, from seven to twelve years old, were spent in that second-floor space, singing to God, watching the puppets open their soft, Venus flytrap mouths, learning the spiritual economics of transactional relationships: scripture for lollypops, perfect attendance for bottles of bubbles.
Chinatree, Catherine. “They Keep Showing Their Hands, But Keep Hiding Their Faces.” 2022. Acrylic on Canvas. 150 x 150 cm.
“How many of you speak in tongues?” he asked. A few kids raised their hands. “I am going to show you how,” he said. “Close your eyes.” And we obeyed. If you could, wouldn’t you want to talk to God or a god, if you believed in one? And if there was some special anointed language to do so, wouldn’t you want to speak it or try? I was standing in the back row like I often did, and which made my mother upset. She told me that people who sat on the back row in church are closer to the door and will eventually backslide out of the pew and into the parking lot, slipping further away from God.
Paster Lonnie played the guitar in a soothing style as the pianist accompanied his lullaby-like rhythm. The barometric pressure seemed to start dropping in the room—the weather of the music and the air molecules shifting suddenly—as if Pastor Lonnie and his band were conjuring a little storm with their instruments. Our little child bodies and theta brain waves were being controlled to the sounds and directions of salvation with strings we couldn’t see but feel as if we were wooden dolls dangling from the hands of a marionettist, manipulating and delicately tugging how we moved in the sanctified space. Pastor Lonnie would often quote from Isaiah 1:18, which reads “…though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow.” I would repeat and whisper the same words back to God, asking him to forgive me, asking him to make my heart “white as snow.” White as snow. White as. White. I wanted to be that pure and sinless as the tempest shook our souls like a snow globe.
Pastor Lonnie started praying, interceding on our behalf, asking God to bless us with this spiritual gift. “Lift your hands to heaven,” he sang to us, almost in a commanding way, but gentler. He had a soft, friendly voice. He was a short, middle-aged man. Thin frame with a tint of strawberry blond hair. Non-threatening. Sharp nose, little icy eyes that were clear, strikingly blue, and polite. It was his eyes that made you want to believe him. He was the dad from Full House meets Mr. Rogers if they both played guitar and had a slight twangy country accent. He was charismatic and goofy, everything you would enlist and hope for in a children’s pastor.
And then it happened, slowly: I started to sway. I don’t remember why I started moving my body back and forth like a metronome, but somehow all the kids in the congregation were on the same spiritual pendulum. Our hands lifted, our bodies buoyed, our minds half in heaven, our ears listening to everything Pastor Lonnie was about to say or sing next. He explained the ritual of speaking in tongues. He explained to us that this was a spiritual language, a heavenly language, a way to talk to God that wouldn’t make sense to our ears but would be clear to God through the Holy Spirit, who was speaking through us, translating our prayers and praise. “It will sound like gibberish, but that’s okay,” he assured us. He made it seem as if a waterfall of words would just pour out of our mouths like a river looping on one or two syllables. He said all this as the mellifluous melodies started to swell from the makeshift stage, matching the pre-passion and titillating excitement at the beginning of a roller coaster ride before the first big dip into the series of swirling madness.
The room, and the weather in that room, and our bodies in that concrete room with the white speckled linoleum floors were all starting to get emotional, reverberating with warmth and intensity. It was like that moment right after a toddler falls and you can measure in their face how badly they are hurt, you can see the baby starting to determine the pain, and then instantly, and all at once, the tears and anguish burst through their body like a sprinkler. Immediate—a finger snap, and then the holy thunder clapped. Pastor Lonnie was speaking in tongues fervently now as if he was singing straight into a box fan buttoned up to his face with a harmonica holder. He would find a slurry cadence in the style of an auctioneer’s chant, rhythmically repeating a letter like “m” and then “s” and then “k” and simmer there—mmmhmms-s-s-s-s-sh-sh-sa-sa-kahhh—leaning into to all the contours of those letters paired with different vowels for a staccato, jazz scatting effect, elaborating each sound with ornamentation and elaboration like smearing grace notes. Assonance hovered and lingered in that room like expensive perfume, wafting mystical linguistics. The consonants had sharper moments that cut the smooth piano keys with clatter, such tiny holy knives. A cacophonous choir, everyone seemed to be in a trance looping unintelligible speech patterns together as the tone bent dramatic, unrecognizable, and specific all at once. The room percolated with our racket.
I was familiar with these pressurized moments in church when “the spirit takes over.” I had seen people faint, backs snap backwards, the points of high heels stomp into hardwood floors like relentless hammers, leaving small, indented dots embossed into the wood glaze. It feels like that decisive moment at a pep rally or concert when you know you can join and participate in the call-and-response-sing-along or you can just stand there and observe the action developing in front of you, mocking it or mimicking it or so badly wanting to be a part of it but something unnamable still stops you from fully buying into the present moment full tilt. Or you can do all of the above, which is what I often did, existing in the liminality of enthusiastic events with all the colliding Venn diagrams that required my presence, my action, my doubt, and distinct belief in their overlapping circles reverberating outwards—
Like a Black bell, I rocked back and forth, nearly pinging the hand of God. My hands lifted to Jesus, my arms covered in white, airy lace, as if I was reaching for the faucet of heaven but only getting drips at first. Even as a young part time skeptic, I didn’t want to be left out. I didn’t want Jesus to skip me. I wanted to be able to talk to him, and if this was a way to communicate then I wanted to at least try. I remember feeling like I might sound silly. I started to hum, I think, at first to warm up my nervous, cold throat. I whispered some letters in a rhythm with a repetition that somewhat made sense to me, but then the room started to gain momentum, a propulsion, like a boat engine being revved by spiritual force.
What felt like fresh bath liquid slid over my head, my joints and river mouth. The kids and I were really getting into it now. Pastor Lonnie sang, “Louder, louder! Let God hear you.” All of us obeyed and became buttons sliding up on a control panel in a music studio, the room raised its voice on cue as the band matched our rising volume. Something broke loose in that kinetic atmosphere, everyone chanting to their own curious and sacred alphabet, and I started to get louder in the thick soup of it. Inside the longing, I furiously cracked open for release.
I don’t know how to describe what happened to me in that room other than to say that what I experienced was divinely inspired, divinely dissociated, or that I wanted so badly to be consumed by divine desire as a child that I mimicked the pageantry of speaking in tongues to the point where I don’t know what I made up and what actually happened. Maybe, some part of what I believe about God exists in those inconclusive, fuzzy places, and gauzy moments that I can’t fully translate or explain, because in between the intersection of faith and doubt, awe and cynicism, memory and forgetting, was where my desire collided with my urgent desperation to be saved by any force greater than myself. And whatever omnipotent wave wanted to wash and ripple over me, I let it take me, completely, wholly under its almighty riptide.
When I realized that I could tell my God-dad how lonely and rejected I was, then I started to get bolder and faster inside and outside of church with the glossolalia, translating to “tongue talking” in Greek. Tears dripped down my cheeks like tiny wet comets tails. Speaking this way coded the hurt perforating inside little me. I didn’t have to be explicit about my early pain. If it was cloaked, then I could smash all my sorrow through gibberish as an offering. I could hide behind my wounds through a humbling, even embarrassing, act through a language no one could understand but God, my invisible dad, with his holy spirit rushing through the children’s church like a water tornado of kids crying out alongside Pastor Lonnie, Salvation Dalmatian, and me, clutching my white leather Precious Moments Bible stuffed with Kingdom Cash.
In Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, Bernard attends a Solidarity Service and consumes “soma,” which induces a type of religious revival parody with twelve men and women dancing, shouting, and expressively melting around a circle. I read the book during high school in 1999, and it reminded me of the numinous escalation of my own electric experience. I can almost decipher my nearly illegible handwriting where I wrote in the marginalia on page 83, “drunk in the spirit.” Huxley captured the frenzy I felt that Sunday during Children’s Church when he wrote on that same page, “A sensation of warmth radiated thrillingly out from the solar plexus to every extremity of the bodies of those who listened; tears came into their eyes; their hearts, their bowels seemed to move within them, as though with an independent life.”
As kids, we were not singing and shouting “Orgy-Porgy” (my high school self wrote “disgusting” over the erotic hymn, ha!), and although we most certainly did not have sex at the end of our service, there was a pure type of sensuality to the procession of tongues, a libidinous nature to the fanatic begging and body swaying. There was a way in which I was asking to be filled, consumed. There was a way in which I was lit and then released from the claw of divine fire. Bernard describes this shimmering after effect in Fifi Bradlaugh’s face as “…the calm ecstasy of achieved consummation, the peace, not of mere vacant satiety and nothingness, but of balanced life, of energies at rest and in equilibrium…She was made full, she was made perfect, she was more merely herself.” He is describing a sexual and spiritual afterglow, a coruscating conclusion. When you believe you have superpowers, there’s a sheen of lust to it. You want more of that radiating spark. You want to be filled again and again like the end of that roller coaster ride when you want to ride again and…Again! And then you are, and then there’s the after, where you are left, sparkling with zealous dew.
At the end of children’s church, in that emptied possession, I was gleaming. I’ve been chasing that warmth of completion. I’ve been walking down the aisle on my knees begging God, anyone to save me, to fill me up, my whole life.
Tiana Clark is the author of the poetry collection, I Can’t Talk About the Trees Without the Blood (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2018), winner of the 2017 Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize, and Equilibrium (Bull City Press, 2016). Clark is a winner for the 2020 Kate Tufts Discovery Award (Claremont Graduate University), a 2019 National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellow, and the 2015 Rattle Poetry Prize. She is a recipient of the 2021-2022 Amy Lowell Poetry Traveling Scholarship and 2019 Pushcart Prize. Clark is the 2017-2018 Jay C. and Ruth Halls Poetry Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute of Creative Writing. She is the recipient of scholarships and fellowships to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and Kenyon Review Writers Workshop. Her writing has appeared in or is forthcoming from The New Yorker, Poetry Magazine, The Atlantic, The Washington Post, Virginia Quarterly Review, Tin House Online, Kenyon Review, BuzzFeed News, American Poetry Review, Oxford American, The Best American Poetry 2022, and elsewhere. She teaches at the Sewanee School of Letters. She is the Grace Hazard Conkling Writer-in-Residence at Smith College. Her next two books (Scorched Earth, a poetry collection and Begging to be Saved, a memoir) are forthcoming with Atria. You can find more information about at tianaclark.com.
Catherine Chinatree is Margate-based multidisciplinary visual artist interested in the representational idea of shared “reality” with a focus on identity, dualism, and cultural fluidity. Her work is supported with research in Anthropology, Social surrealism and human behaviour. Most of her inspiration comes from the outside world of everyday life, our daily activities, symbolism, rituals, and the people she meets. Her practice is both studio- and outdoor- based. She studied at Wimbledon College of Arts, graduating with a Masters in Fine Art. She was awarded the Ferdynand Zweig Arts travel Scholarship award, and set up a collaborative engagement project between the UK and Havana, Cuba. Shortlisted for the Mercury Music Arts Prize, Nasty Woman NYC and The Griffin x Elephant New Graduates Arts Prize, Catherine also completed an artist residency with Elephant Magazine, has been Sponsored by Liquitex Paints, and was selected for the The World Reimagined Artist Globe Commission. Recent exhibitions include a group show at The Saatchi Gallery, and a site specific group show at Trafalgar Square, London. Catherine is currently completing an artist residency in Motherhood Sintra, Portugal. An exhibition of the works will be at Liminal Gallery in Margate Uk between the 22nd July until the 05th August 2023. For more: www.chinatree.me/